To describe Minton Sparks as unique hardly does her justice. Unparalleled is probably a more accurate description of the speaker/songwriter Nashville resident whose music, poetry and storytelling about people and places in the rural South are gossip laced, provocative, intoxication, hypnotic and spiked with black humour. Minton took time out from her hectic schedule to discuss her career path to date and much more.
Comparisons with Flannery O’Connor and Hank Williams regularly feature in articles written about you. Were they actual influences and what other writers and musicians stimulated your chosen career. I’m particularly interested in your musical inspirations given that your Gold Digger album suggests full on blues, gospel and jazz leanings, whereas your earlier work were more rural country?
I’m a big Flannery O’Connor fan. Musical influences are all over the board. Tom Waits, John Prine, the Indigo Girls, Patti Smith. My collaborator guitarist, John Jackson, is one of the most versatile musical talents I know. Once the piece finds it home note, or what I’m trying to say, he finds a way to come under that and make it soar.
You are extraordinarily unique in that no one else (with the possible exception of punk poet John Cooper Clarke) is mixing the spoken word with music as you do. What was the deciding factor that inspired you to put music to your poems?
I was a published poet for years before it dawned on me that maybe twenty people were reading my work. My guitar teacher at the time, Rob Jackson, was willing to begin putting my poems to music. Together we forged a possible new genre. It took me a couple of records to figure out what I was even doing because I didn’t know an artist at the time doing the same thing.
I particularly love the logo on your shirts that reads ‘The best country singer that doesn’t sing’. Not an absolutely accurate characterisation to be fair. Had you ever considered singing in full voice when you decided to put your words to music?
The past few year I’ve begun song-writing, working with dear friend John Hadley. So today I have 2 or 3 songs in each performance.
Which came first as a developing artist, the stories or the music?
The stories always come first. It takes me forever to dig in and see what the tone is, once I know that the piece comes together. Stories always point to something larger. Gold Digger the title track to current album evolved over time. I tend to edit after I’m able to perform a piece before an audience.
Are you the nosy next-door neighbour and people watching type in creating your tales, or are they all very much works of fiction?
I’m a sponge for drama. Always eaves dropping on nearby conversations. So, I guess you could say I’m the spy next door.
There is tragedy, black humour and desperation in your tales and characters. You seem particularly sympathetic to the people you write about and their predicaments. Do you consider yourself as a conduit representing the relationships and circumstances of ordinary and often voiceless people?
I worked as a therapist in my early days, and then attended Divinity school (though I dropped out later) so I’m very interested in giving a voice to the voiceless, or more importantly listening to those who are not listened to traditionally.
Tell me about the Nashville Writing and Performing Institute that you founded and the motivation behind it?
After each performance, someone comes up desperate to tell the stories caught inside their throat. After a couple of years, I decided to create the Nashville Writing and Performance Institute as an outlet for folks with trapped stories. We have an open mic for the school once every few months so that students have a chance to perform their writing for an audience. I taught Psychology for 10 years and absolutely love teaching transformation. It’s deeply rewarding to hear someone own a story that used to hold them back. Novelist Dorothy Allison always says, “we are every story we ever survived”. I love her.
From your experiences conducting storytelling workshops across the country. Can the gift be taught or does the student require an inherent skill set that just requires a framework?
The story finding the page is a birth right that a lot of people never discover. I feel like our writing voice is basic to humanity; and it’s a fabulous way to alchemize experiences that otherwise get stuck in the throat. Whether or not, the result looks like someone has “a gift” or not, doesn’t matter. It’s the storytelling that heals the heart.
Does the current political in The States situation give you food for new material or is it a topic you’d prefer avoid?
Oh yeah, the week after the last presidential elections I wrote a piece, Fight Club, out of desperation. I’m trying to see why “my people would ever vote for someone who is so against their basic interests, their basic decency.
You have been working and performing with guitarist John Jackson for ten years at this stage. How influential is he is creating the music that decorates your lyrics?
We’ve worked together long enough that he completely understands the under song of the stories I write. He finds a way into what I’m saying musically. It lifts the piece into another realm. Very lucky to work with him.
Your last album release Gold Digger was particularly powerful and somewhat darker than your previous work. It also rocked out gloriously on tracks like I Am From, Hi Helen and the title track and jazzed out on Mary Kaye Disciple and Black and Blue Tattoo. Was this experimental or a general change in musical direction for you?
We decided to record with a band on Gold Digger. At the time Joe McMahan a fabulous guitarist and producer here in Nashville suggested I do a record with some of the best musicians we could find. Go in the studio and see what we heard. He pulled in Dave Jacques on bass and Shad Cobb on fiddle. So, Joe produced and played on one side of the record and it was just going to be five songs. Six months later we went into the late, great, Brian Harrison’s studio to finish. Brian produced the second side. I’m constantly evolving musically because the stories are coming from a different place as time goes on. I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with folks like Chris Thile, Keb Mo’ and Waylon Jennings.
You’ve graced the Grand Ole Opry, which is a commendable achievement. How did the performance go?
The performance was a dream come true. My Dad always said that I couldn’t claim success until I was on the Opry. What he wouldn’t understand is they never have spoken word artists on the Opry. So it was thrilling to play both at Ryman and out at the Opry House. The audience was incredibly open to us. Bill Anderson was complimentary after the performance saying, “I think we are going to be hearing a lot more from that lady with the purse!”
With the wealth of female talent in Nashville that find it difficult, if not impossible, to get deserved radio play, what outlets are available to you to market your work?
We almost have to make our own outlets. Americana stations will play us although it’s not an easy fit. We did play the first Americana show here in Nashville. We have a couple of loyal station in Ashville, NC. We’ve been recently featured on the ACME radio show, and a local WXNA. We are touring and getting the word out that way. We really want to do a European tour next summer
And getting gigs, given how distinctive your shows are, easier or more difficult than regular musicians?
I have a regular series here in Nashville at the city Winery Lounge called, “No Lady’s Land” I’m trying to get the most brilliant talent as openers for the series. That’s how we met Emma Swift. Otherwise I’m out playing storytelling festivals, colleges, and performance spaces of all stripes.
You have worked with two of my favourite artists and indeed storytellers, Sam Baker and Jim White. How did that come about?
I met Jim White in Atlanta on a co bill at the Grocery on Home house show produced by the infamous Matt Arnette.
Jim and I became fast friends and he invited me to spend the winter in Calgary at the Banff Art Center with Sam Baker and Mary Gauthier trying come up with a Southern musical play of sorts. All those guys are brilliant and we had a wonderful time together. I’m so inspired by Sam, Mary and Jim.
I’m aware that you have had pieces published in literary journals but have you considered an anthology of short stories expanding on various tracks from your albums?
I’m in the middle of writing a collection of short stories having to deal with growing up working in an Amusement Park in Bunnell, Florida.
This will probably sound like a ridiculous question but your accent is to die for, to someone like myself from this side of the world! Is it altogether natural or exaggerated for greater affect?
I’m from a small town in Tennessee. I’m afraid it’s authentic.
You performed in Ireland a few years back. Any plans for a return visit?
We loved playing the Belfast Songwriting Festival and would absolutely love to go back.
Interview by Declan Culliton Photograph by Gina Binkley